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Posted on October 20, 2015 in Curator's Notes
Jan Martens and the Beauty of the Imperfect

The Dance Centre’s Executive Director Mirna Zagar introduces Flemish choreographer Jan Martens and his work The Dog Days Are Over, presented in Vancouver October 29-31, 2015:

Still only in his early thirties, the Flemish choreographer Jan Martens is already well on his way to being something of a superstar in dance. Several of his works are on tour in parallel across the world. His rise to this stardom was quite quick, as he migrated from dancer to choreographer (though he still dances periodically in his own works). His creative as well as touring dynamic is impressive: 12 productions for his own company and others in the past five years, and a touring schedule currently counting 78 venues across the world (and that is only until spring 2016!).

The results to date are a dream for any independent dance artist trying to make it in a competitive world that requires talent, hard work and more hard work. Jan is no stranger to both and is quite involved in all aspects of his work including administration. Yet when you meet him you wouldn’t guess – he is quiet, thoughtful, slight in build, one would say very normal, and while he is always very focused on what he does, he is also very approachable. This might be part of his success as his intent is to remain close to his audiences. He is also a master of observation. This, and his motto ‘perfection is dull’, all comes into play as he creates works where, down to the last drop of sweat, all is in fact carefully constructed and has a point to make. There is nothing left to chance, even if it does not seem to be the case, or rather the degree of risk is high, and the margins for error very slim. And it is important for him for the audience to be engaged: he will provoke, bring food for thought, but he will want the audience to have fun. This is the thin line between art and entertainment, the modern day gladiator on the arena called the stage, the spectator as a voyeur.  In these past years of “austerity” we all witnessed cutbacks in the public sector’s investments into the arts, questioning the role of arts in society, and artists feel they need to prove they are important. They must entertain so society can have its fun. To what extremes will we go? Not only in the arts, perhaps? This question may seem severe. But it is at the same time relatable to all – the daily grind we accept to succeed, where are the boundaries? When does it all become too much?

Jan Martens

Jan’s signature? Strong physicality; minimalism, or call it simplicity; refined emotions that arise apparently out of nothing, peaking in an almost euphoric state in which he brings the audience into the fold with what is happening on the stage.  Maybe some of this flows from his experiences as a long-time dancer with Belgian choreographer Ann van den Broek whose approach is very physical, or his time as resident artist with Emio Greco’s ICK Amsterdam  whose works resonate with a baroque flair yet are stripped of all unnecessary details, or it could be a  reflection on the minimalist approaches typical of Lucinda Childs. Regardless, his work is his very own: it is also very political, almost a manifesto, and still it is deeply human, despite being abstract, conceptual. That he is different in his approach to the body and what he aims to do is visible in his call for dancers as he embarked on The Dogs Days Are Over in which he specified  that age and body constitution were of no importance, and that dancers applying should be able to count. 

Jan is not looking to invent a new movement language, he is perfectly fine with existing idioms and placing them in different settings, so new ideas and experiences emerge. He is driven by the quest for the true beauty of the imperfect human being to emerge, rather than trying to excel in choreographically complex phrasings and succumbing to physical virtuosity.

In The Dog Days are Over (2014) he affirms all of this, and his appetite for movement is clear, yet he breaks the mould once again. His choice this time is the jump. His aim is to reveal the person behind the dancer. In order to this he creates a complex, mathematical, dynamic, tiring work, performed by eight dancers in unison. The degree of difficulty multiplies as the work evolves, and the dancers will make mistakes as they undertake this inhuman effort to succeed, to attain perfection as individuals and as a corps de ballet. We face the display of the often punishing world of a dance, and the expectations placed on them. It is not only about the dance. To make it human, relatable, he uses a simple act of the jump that most of us can relate to.   It is here that the masks fall, for the jump is not chosen without purpose. The American photographer Philippe Halsman said if you ask someone to jump you will see their true face.  The audience sees the jumping increase in height, the rhythms change, there is nothing to follow but the jump. The many variations it can have are endless. We start following the dancers from individual, to group, back to the individual;  the detailing of muscle groups; the perspiration as it slowly reveals itself and builds up into a bath of sweat; we are forced to focus and observe the smallest of details that we can interpret as we wish. By bringing focus to one simple movement and how it is executed by eight different bodies, we are exposed to a world of interpretation on many levels, and these expand as our own sense of observation is sharpened, as we suddenly see a horizontal movement of the hair amongst this vertical, and our sense of time becomes distorted. How is it possible they are still there?

The Dog Days Are Over: photo Piet Goethals

We feel our own pulses rise as we observe the physicality increase.  Is this dance? We say dance is movement. The jumping in this performance is clearly movement, then it must be dance. Take it further: replace jumping with running, it is then also dance; any movement therefore by this type of deduction can be and is dance. Any movement around us then is dance and all that lives and moves, dances. Life in itself is a dance from birth to death. To be alive is to move, to dance. By similar deductions we can ask what is the distinction between us the spectators and them the performers? What is the difference between working and living? Who are we as spectators, and what do we as audiences look for when go to a show? How does our role change with the feelings which arise depending on what type of show we choose to watch? Do we participate by only observing or is it deeper? What is our collective and individual role? What levels of intensity in our world of today do we need to experience to feel alive? To be moved?

At The Dance Centre our goal is to provide you with unique perspectives from some very unique artists. I believe that these experiences make us feel alive, and connect us to the world around us, so that we start to consider the extraordinary in some of the most ordinary of  things. The beauty of theatre and dance today is in the often unexpected emotions and revelations that they bring about. Isn’t this a risk worth taking?


The Dance Centre presents The Dog Days Are Over as part of the Global Dance Connections series October 29-31, 2015 at Scotiabank Dance Centre.

Photos: Jan Martens by Renate Beense; The Dog Days Are Over by Piet Goethals.



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